Bidding or Buying Art, Antiques or Collectibles

at Online Auctions or Fixed Price Websites?

Read This First

Online auctions of art, antiques and collectibles have forever changed the way buyers and sellers do business. In the good old days, like fifteen years ago, dealers and collectors physically traveled from place to place in order to buy. Their other search tools included phones, faxes, gallery associations, specialty publications, trade shows, dealer organizations, and collector clubs. Sellers had few options other than to sell locally to dealers, consign to auctions, have house sales or advertise in newspaper classifieds. Today, anyone can sell just about anything to anyone anywhere in the world almost instantly.

The great majority of Internet auction buying is fun, easy, cost effective and satisfying. Dealers and collectors find quality items in far away places and sellers reach more buyers and sell for higher prices than ever before. The volume of Internet transactions is steadily on the rise as people become increasingly comfortable with this way of doing business.

Unfortunately, online auctions also have a downside. Naive and inexperienced sellers routinely make mistakes in describing their merchandise and novice buyers who believe everything they read without asking questions overpay for it. The most ordinary everyday items frequently sound like long lost treasures. Superlatives like rare, important, fantastic, exquisite, or museum-quality appear everywhere and are often used without qualification or regard to accuracy. For example, on April 14th, 2000, 108,183 items on eBay were described as rare; as of May 5, 2011, that number had increased to 1,261,711; as of August 14, 2013, the number has ballooned to 2,221,194. Perhaps rare items are becoming more common. Certainly looks that way, doesn't it?

Another problem, far worse than naive sellers, is unscrupulous sellers specializing in fakes, forgeries and misrepresentations. These criminals reach more unsuspecting buyers with greater ease and anonymity than they could have ever imagined before the Internet. What's even more amazing is that they cultivate respectable online reputations while, at the very same time, making spurious claims about their bogus goods. All they have to do to receive positive feedback is answer questions promptly, make sure buyers believe in what they bid on, pack goods securely, mail on time and respond appropriately to all other requests. And as for negative feedback? Hardly anybody gives it anymore because they're afraid of "retaliatory negative feedback" from the sellers who victimized them.

Back in the old days, before the Internet, dealers, collectors, curators, auction house staffs, and other trade professionals were the ones who decided how significant items were and how to describe them-- not amateur sellers. Dishonest dealers had reputations in their communities for trafficking in questionable goods. People knew who they were and avoided them. Traditional safeguards like these protected consumers, assured a level of quality control, and helped prevent misrepresentations. Online, traditional safeguards such as these do not exist and do not apply.

Internet buyers have far fewer protections than do buyers in the real world. They're more on their own than ever before and must learn to shop accordingly. Asking the right questions, qualifying sellers, evaluating merchandise, and assessing accuracy are of utmost importance in preventing costly mistakes. The following guidelines, custom tailored to online auctions, help make this possible:

* Have sellers qualify all claims they make about their goods. If an item is described as rare, for example, find out who decided it was rare and how they reached that conclusion.

* Get credentials and contact information for all individuals, including sellers, who make special claims about merchandise. In order for their statements to be taken seriously, they should be known and respected experts in their fields or be able to provide documentation from known and respected experts. If they are not respected experts or have no documentation, consider what they say to be uninformed personal opinions and nothing more.

* When sellers state that items similar to theirs or by the same artists or manufacturers have sold for certain amounts of money, request complete documentation of those sales including what sold (subject matter, size, condition, age, etc.), how much it sold for, and where, when, and under what circumstances it sold.

* When items are represented as coming from important estates, wealthy families, major collectors, or other exceptional situations, request physical proof including names, addresses, dates, receipts, auction records, or published news stories. Never accept verbal hearsay as fact.

* When a previous owner is stated to be an important collector, find out what that owner collected, what his or her contact information is or was, why he or she was considered important, where the collection was exhibited, and which experts or public records confirm that these claims are so.

* Never assume that just because an item is signed or otherwise labeled that it is automatically genuine. All physical characteristics of that item also have to be right. Keep in mind that the signature is only one of many characteristics that an expert takes into consideration when evaluating an antique, collectible, or work of fine art.

* Request complete condition reports, including locations and extent of all existing damage, as well as records of previous repairs or restorations.

* Ask for detailed scans or photographs of any areas of items that you have additional questions about.

* Always check sellers' other online sales, both ongoing and completed. Watch for repeated use of similar words, phrases or descriptions. Groups of items rarely share identical characteristics and repeated use of the same words can tip you off to potential problems with the merchandise. Also be cautious when one seemingly important item is listed alongside ordinary everyday items. For example, if a "Rare 16th Century Old Master Painting" is being offered along with lots consisting of kids toys, golf clubs, and car tires, this could be cause for concern.

* Never assume that merchandise is described accurately just because seller feedback profiles are positive. Always perform complete independent research before bidding.

* Obtain answers to all questions in writing (emails will do), especially relating to authenticity, before you bid and not after.

* Make sure you have a money-back guarantee and adequate time to fully inspect (or have outside experts inspect) any items that you purchase. A corollary to this is NEVER pay in forms of cash-- bank transfer, wire transfer, money order, and so on. Use credit cards; that way, you have recourse. If the seller doesn't take credit cards, DON'T BUY THE ITEM. Sure, some cash-only sellers are honest, but there's substantial abuse in this area.

* Make sure you have complete freedom to select experts to evaluate your merchandise. Sellers should have no control over which experts you choose.

* Save all email correspondences with sellers. Also document all phone conversations, faxes, and other communications that you have with sellers and their associates.

* If you're at all unsure about an item, consult an independent expert BEFORE you bid, not after.

* If an item has few or no bids, but is supposed to be special in some way, get an outside expert opinion and exercise caution before bidding. Items that are genuinely exceptional tend to sell for higher prices and have multiple bids.

* When an item's online reserve or current high bid is substantially less than what comparable items sell for on the open market, this may be cause for concern. Quality items generally sell for higher prices-- even online.

* One of the essential ingredients of bricks-and-mortar auctions is being able to preview the merchandise in person. Not being able to physically inspect items first is a major drawback to online buying. Unless you're experienced in evaluating the items from photographs or digital images and can draw informed conclusions, either exercise caution or don't bid at all.

* Unless you're an experienced collector, never assume that you're the only one who spots an online bargain. eBay has well over one hundred million users and of those hundred million, thousands of savvy and knowledgeable buyers (at the very least) continually monitor auctions for all manner of antiques, collectibles, and fine art every day, all the time. Virtually nothing escapes them; believe it.

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